The Power of the Dog (2021)
Directed by Jane Campion
Screenplay by Campion; based on a novel by Thomas Savage
★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
A lot of Jane Campion’s work is powerfully erotic, sometimes exploring particularly difficult areas of human eroticism. With The Power of the Dog, based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name, Campion turns her talents for framing people’s erotic loves towards a story about a rancher named Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) in 1920s Montana, whose relationship with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) and George’s new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) becomes a struggle after they all start living under the same roof. Phil’s transformed slightly by a budding relationship with Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee); at first he antagonises the young man, but then seems to take Peter under his wing eventually. All the while Phil’s grappling with the lifelong effects of his relationship with another cowboy, Bronco Henry, and his closeted homosexuality, an identity his cowboy lifestyle cannot accommodate.
The term ‘toxic masculinity’ has become a buzzword to lots of folks, but many of us queer men know, just like women know all too well, it’s a very real phenomenon, and it comes to bear in horrible ways on the lives of men and women alike. The Power of the Dog looks at the harms in toxic forms of masculinity through Phil’s difficulties negotiating his gay identity in a world that’s not structured, or willing, to accept it. Campion weaves the erotic, the Gothic, and closeted homosexuality together into a beautiful yet tragic mosaic about internal gay struggles and how they can turn a man bitter to the world, but also how those bitter men, sometimes, find little slivers of sweetness along the way.
The collision of hegemonic masculinity and bourgeois values is a significant aspect underlying The Power of the Dog. Phil and George clearly come from money, living in a massive house in Montana, coupled with the fact we hear that Phil studied Classics at Yale. In one scene with the other cowboys, Phil makes reference to Little Lord Fauntleroy, a 19th-century novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. That he assumes these other cowboys—none of whom likely went to Yale as he was so privileged to do—have heard of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel and get the reference is comical, illustrating his engrained bourgeois values. More than that, the bourgeois perspective of masculinity relies on production in two senses: first, production in terms of labour which, in a patriarchal society, is seen as a man’s responsibility, and second, production in terms of reproduction (i.e. reproducing the labour force, heterosexual reproduction). Phil was born not only into a society but a family in which heteronormativity was prescribed.
Phil’s general hegemonic masculinity and heteronormative behaviour is seen best through the way he verbally pummels people. He calls his brother George “Fatso” constantly, mocking George in terms of what a supposed ‘real man’ should look like (apparently not like George, according to Phil). Phil’s mockery of the younger Peter, particularly early on, is full of heteronormative nonsense. He uses a faux lispy voice to make fun of the younger man for the enjoyment of the rest of his hyper-masculine crew. He calls Peter “Miss Nancy” a few times throughout the film. During one scene, Phil’s crew whistle at Peter, treating him the way they’d harass a woman; they call him “Little Nancy” and “Little faggot.”
All that hegemonic masculinity on top of the crushing heteronormativity equals a constantly angry Phil. He tortures his brother’s new wife simply because George is happy, and is able to be himself, whereas Phil continually has to hide his true homosexuality, burying it within him and always having to put on a ‘straight’ face for the world. One scene shows Phil getting angered by the sounds of George and Rose having sex, so he goes outside and polishes the saddle that belonged to Bronco Henry, caressing the leather and the nob of the saddle. At a dinner with his crew, he snaps at people singing along while a man plays piano for them; he can’t even let others enjoy themselves, anyone who’s visibly happy is like an enemy in his eyes. The repressed homoerotic desire within Phil is like a pot full of hot water perpetually right on the precipice of its boiling point.
An important scene takes place after Phil discovers his brother’s getting married. After he hears the news he goes out to the barn in a rage, calling his horse a “little bitch” and a “fat–faced bitch” while beating the poor animal with his jacket. This horse scene is eerily, and powerfully, reminiscent of a scene in Reflections in a Golden Eye starring Marlon Brando, another film about hegemonic masculinity and its implications on the repressed homosexuality of men, especially men in traditionally masculine professions like Phil as a cowboy rancher and Brando who plays a lifelong military man. In Reflections in a Golden Eye, Brando’s character whips a horse brutally because the horse represents the idealised masculinity to which he, a closeted gay man, does not quite conform.
“Don‘t let your mom make a sissy of you“
There’s a deeply painful quality to the way Phil sequesters himself in the closet in The Power of the Dog. Phil’s uncomfortable swimming without clothes on around the other cowboys in his crew, not wanting to be undressed with other men as if concerned he’ll be incapable of controlling his homoerotic desire and unleash it on them. He actually has a place out in the forest, a secret place just for him, where he goes to hide pornographic magazines featuring men, and where he swims by himself. It’s also where he spends time with his dead lover.
Bronco Henry and Phil’s relationship to him is a lingering Gothic homoeroticism that continues to grip the latter for the rest of his life. A great scene takes place in Phil’s secret forest place, where he takes out Henry’s handkerchief, gets undressed, and rubs the handkerchief all over his face and body, touching himself with it; he even keeps the handkerchief in the crotch of his pants. He’s haunted by the memories he shared with Bronco Henry, never able to find that kind of secret, intimate relationship again and certainly never able to live such intimacy openly. He recounts to Peter, very honestly, how Henry saved his life one night after he nearly froze to death; Henry stripped them both down and they were “body against body in a bedroll.”
Though Phil can’t find the intimacy he shared with Henry again there is a small saving grace for him in his newly forged relationship with Peter. They spend time on the road together camping, getting to know one another better. In a scene late in the film, Peter holds a cigarette to Phil’s lips as they share it together and it’s a deeply, quietly erotic moment between them. That still doesn’t change the way Phil’s inability to accept his homosexuality, and live it openly, has rendered him a ghost of man. Phil becomes like a ghost himself, haunting Rose while whistling the tune she was trying to master on the piano earlier, taunting her because she makes his brother happy and that makes him jealous since he’s incapable of being himself and loving another man. In the end, Phil becomes a Bronco Henry-like figure for Peter potentially, leaving behind the rope they made together in the same way Henry left behind his saddle. While he and Peter didn’t get as close as he and Henry did, it is obvious their brief relationship left a lasting mark on Peter just as much as it did on Phil, too.
“Ain‘t them purdy“
Though Phil becomes like a Bronco Henry figure in Peter’s life, dying and leaving behind the intimacy they shared, as well as pieces of subtle knowledge about what it’s like to be a closeted gay man in a heteronormative world, there’s a hope in Campion’s film at the end that perhaps Peter might find a different way than the path Phil took. Yet there’s a haunting ambiguity, too. The final scene features Peter putting the rope he made with Phil underneath his bed before he goes to the window and looks down upon a scene of heteronormativity, watching his mother and George embrace. There may be hope. We also know the history of queer people in America, and Peter still lives in a near mid-20th-century society that’s hostile to gay men.
The Power of the Dog is a painful, painfully erotic, and simultaneously sweet portrait of homosexual longing in a time much less hospitable to queer love, even if there’s still a long way to go today sadly. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Phil is full of pathos; every single gesture and movement seems to convey the emotional volcano dying to erupt from inside Phil. The struggle Phil goes through is one that men even nowadays contend with, especially depending on where they live, and there’s a tragedy to the reality that though a lot has changed so much of what we queer people have gone through historically is still occurring.
For all the pain in Campion’s film, The Power of the Dog offers moments where the sweetness of gay life exist, in the private moments Phil experiences with the ghostly memory of Henry’s companionship and in the tender relationship Phil builds with Peter while they’re alone together. Too many films about queer and trans people depict only the tragedy, whereas Campion strikes a balance that acknowledges the difficulties of living a non-heteronormative life while never forgetting the beauty that exists even in the most difficult of places for queer and trans folks.